MIND MATTERS:  The Upside of Boredom

We avoid it and kids complain about it, but boredom can be a very good thing.  When my 11-year-old son complains to me, “I’m bored,” my response to him is “good!” or “that’s great!”  Needless to say, this isn’t the response he is hoping for; but I know that some of his most fun times and best ideas are hatched from boredom.

Feeling bored holds a negative connotation for many.  In the past, it was thought to increase the experience of other negative emotions, like anger and frustration.  And, there is the belief that boredom increases risk for misbehavior (consider the proverb, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”).  But the findings of recent research on boredom don’t support these long-held beliefs.

Results of a recent study published by the Academy of Management (March 2019) indicated that:

  1. Boredom does not result in an increase of other negative emotions.
  2. It can push people to be more creative and fuel brainstorming.  Psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma describes boredom as our brain’s way of searching for an interesting, stimulating activity.  She states, “if we can’t find it in the external environment, we are going to create it.”
  3. Boredom is a variety-driving emotion.  It motivates people to seek novelty by engaging in different, often unusual, ways of doing things.
  4. Boredom does not increase creativity for everyone.  The effect of boredom varies across people.  Being bored increased creativity only in individuals with certain personality traits – including intellectual curiosity, high cognitive drive, openness to new experiences and an inclination toward learning.  For some, the novelty-seeking leads to innovation and enhances productivity, while others may mentally dwell in negativity or uncertainty, take risks, or even become mischievous.

What happens when the brain is bored?
Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us that the answer has to do with something called the default mode network (DMN).  We used to think that the brain was active only when engaged in a task—operating from what is called the task mode network.  But we now know that the brain is always active, even when not engaged in a goal-directed activity.  The default mode activates when the mind is idle.

Journalist, author and podcast host, Manoush Zomorodi explains that activating the “default mode” of the brain can open up possibilities for creativity and problem-solving.  She explains the default mode as being, “when we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems and we do something called autobiographical planning.  This is when we look back at our lives.  We take note of the big moments.  We create a personal narrative.  And then we set goals, and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them.  We literally tell ourselves the story of us.  We look back on our lives—the highs and lows—and build a narrative.”   (*Check out Zomorodi’s TedTalk, “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas,” for more on this.)

People who find mental downtime very useful are likely leveraging time spent in the default mode network in creative and innovative ways (the upside of boredom).   For me this explains why the quiet time in the morning, between waking and beginning my morning routine, is often a source of my “aha” moments.  I also find that spending unstructured time outdoors in nature allows me to mentally disengage and to allow my mind to wander.   Giving my mind a break from constant stimulation opens up the mental space for me to take stock of things and have new thoughts.

Strategies to slow down and allow time for boredom in daily life 
Given what we now know about activating the DMN and the potential upside of boredom, how can you reclaim more time for it?  Psychiatrist, Dr. Sue Varma recommends the following:

  1. Save unstructured time.  Don’t structure every moment of your day.  Scheduling more meetings/activities during the workday does not translate to greater productivity.
  2. Plan downtime.  Protect time for boredom – despite good intentions, the downtime likely won’t happen unless you plan for it and then protect it when other things try to encroach.
  3. Put down the phone—Allow your mind to wander, rather than mindlessly filling each free moment with screen time.  Become more intentional about when and how you use technology.
  4. Allow yourself to wait.  Take advantage of moments of waiting (i.e., for the arrival of others to meetings, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, for a table at a restaurant, during your child’s music lesson or sports practice, in a line at the airport).  These times are sometimes viewed negatively and met with impatience or irritation, but they can be golden opportunities to grab a few minutes of white space if not mindlessly filled with tasks and screen time.

Leveraging time for boredom and creativity in the organization
Efforts to leverage boredom in the workplace have the potential to improve employee engagement and organizational performance.  Companies like Google, Salesforce, and EY are already creating environments to capitalize on this, and we are seeing it start to emerge in the organizations with whom we work.  These efforts and other trends, like virtual teamwork, are becoming more common and are expected to further expand throughout the corporate world in the coming years.

A few key points to consider for your organization:

  1. Understand that there can be value in allowing for boredom at work – for certain types of people and in certain ways.
  2. Create a work culture that encourages regular time for employees to mentally disconnect from the daily work in order to rest, disconnect, reflect and recharge.  Be careful not to value productivity over creativity.   Creativity was identified as the most important leadership quality by CEOs from across the world in a study conducted by IBM.  The value of creativity is acknowledged but sometimes our actions in daily life do not reflect this, likely due to other competing commitments.
  3. Consider ways that you can incorporate space in the work environment that is conducive to boredom and creativity.  This could be a combination of both indoor and outdoor space, depending on the physical location of the organization.

What are some of the ways that you currently protect time for boredom?  How does your organization currently encourage this?  Please share with us and we will pass on your ideas in our next newsletter.  Have a great week out there!